Homeless encampments have been multiplying across Ontario since the pandemic, but experts say this visible symptom of the national housing crisis has been a long time coming.
With limited shelter space, a lack of social housing, increasing cost of home ownership and ballooning rents, more and more people are left with few options but to pitch a tent in a public space.
But how did we get here? And what can be done?
A deep-dive into the City of Hamilton’s experience with homeless encampments and its journey from a law enforcement response to a housing-led approach shows just how complicated it will be to address the issue – and how the circumstances resulting in the proliferation of encampments touch all of us.
Hamilton’s plight around mitigating encampments is certainly not unique.
In late 2022, Statistics Canada revealed more than 235,000 people across Canada experience homelessness in any given year.
As of the summer of 2023, the number of actively homeless people in Hamilton has grown to 1,700 with approximately 165 individuals “truly finding themselves unsheltered,” according to the city’s housing services division.
That number continues to grow, up 12 per cent from just over 1,550 in January and up 69 per cent in three years (June 2020).
Abe Oudshoorn, a researcher focusing on healthcare and homelessness out of Western University, says when looking only at those sleeping outside (and not using shelters or couch-surfing), the number in the city of London has ballooned from roughly 30 people to over 200 in the span of 15 years.
In an interview about the city of London’s use of artificial intelligence in its homelessness response in May, Kevin Dickens, deputy city manager of social and health development, said that there were 38 active encampments in the city.
The rise in visible homelessness, however, has been decades in the making.
“If we go back, even as far as the 1960s and 1970s, (there) was a time where all across Canada we did what’s called social housing or public housing,” Oudshoorn says.
“These were funded by governments, they were owned by the government, and they were provided at what’s called rent geared to income.”
Typically, in a rent geared to income unit, rent would be fixed at roughly 30 per cent of the tenant’s income. Oudshoorn says the public housing model with rent geared to income was popular across the Northern Hemisphere following WWII.
“Then in the 1980s, we had a global recession, a deep recession. And at that time, the idea was to stop spending in a recession. And that’s what countries did. And part of that was cutting social housing and even in some countries they began to sell off the social housing they had just built.”
That disinvestment in housing was the start of a rise of homelessness “like we know it today,” Oudshoorn says, with charities soon stepping in to build shelters as homelessness became more visible.
“The majority of the shelters that we know of today were developed through that period of the ’90s and into the 2000s.”
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At the same time, the responsibility for social housing moved from the federal to the provincial level, and finally to the municipal level. Ontario took over the administration and funding of social housing through an agreement signed in 1999 and in 2001. The province then offloaded the responsibility to 47 municipal services managers, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association.
Joe Hermer, a professor with the University of Toronto’s department of sociology who’s authored several case studies, says the “visibly poor” and unhoused now seen in municipalities began building up in the mid-1990s. By the early 2000s, it had become enough of an issue that Ontario and B.C. adopted some of the first enforcement legislation targeting panhandling.
“The catalyst was the beginning of the housing crisis, which has been a long time in the making, as well as the overdose crisis and the poison drug crisis,” Hermer explains.
Around 2005, Oudshoorn says governments returned to housing but instead of rent geared to income, it’s “affordable housing.”
“Affordable housing is offered at usually 70 or 80 per cent of market rent, which of course is more affordable but it’s not as deeply affordable because as rents go up, that number is further and further from the 30 per cent of people’s income.”
The “bomb went off” with the pandemic
Hermer says the proverbial encampment “bomb went off” during the pandemic as COVID-19 restrictions forced shelters to cut back on the number of beds they could offer proliferating tents in parks and public spaces as people tried to find a safe place to sleep.
“The pandemic was disproportionately damaging to a lot of vulnerable people, and that continues to be the case,” Hermer explains.
“In a nutshell, … you have the intersection of all those things in the last decade with obviously housing as the big issue.”
It’s believed more foreign investment in housing and steady drops in interest rates by the late 1990s started the rise in Canada’s house prices since they were considered a stable investment.
Breakneck price appreciation, once a problem limited largely to areas around Vancouver and Toronto, became a national emergency during the pandemic, with Canada’s average home price rising by more than 30 per cent between July 2019 and July 2021, according to data from the Canadian Real Estate Association.
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Meanwhile, renters in Canada are facing the toughest market in decades with low vacancies, higher prices and surging demand, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
In Ontario, the province does set limits on annual rent increases but units first occupied after Nov. 15, 2018, are exempt. As well, landlords subjected to the limit can still apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board for increases above the cap.
The high cost to own or rent a dwelling coupled with a lack of inventory — not to mention the rising cost of living — results in an increasing number of people at risk of homelessness.
Tents in public spaces became more visible in Hamilton and increased in size during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With widespread service restrictions, the existing affordable housing crisis and income loss, matters became exacerbated, spurring the city to drop some $1 million into makeshift shelters at hotels and the floor of the arena at First Ontario Centre downtown.
However, despite access to washrooms, showers, media lounges and medical treatment rooms, not all accepted the support and instead opted to keep living rough in tents across city parks and other public spaces.
“Shelters aren’t always right for everyone. We have some communities where all shelters, for example, are what we call a dry shelter, which means people can’t have a substance use challenge to stay in that shelter,” Oudshoorn says.
Local researchers keeping track of life expectancy among people living rough in Hamilton believe that number is likely half as much as the typical Hamiltonian based on Statistics Canada data recorded between 2014 and 2016.
Of 70 known deaths over two years, reported by health and social service workers as well as hospitals, the Hamilton Homeless Mortality Data Project says more than half of those unhoused fell between the ages of 30 and 49.
The overwhelming cause of death was by overdose, with about half of the 70 passing to the affliction since June 2021.
McMaster University internal medicine resident physician Dr. Inna Berditchevskaia admits their numbers are not the complete picture since they don’t receive information from the province’s coroner.
As far as they know, fatalities among the unhoused are not happening at any government-sanctioned or regulated safe consumption sites.
“These people are dying in the community, either at a friend’s home or in unsheltered circumstances or outside,” Berditchevskaia says.
“So we need to be bringing … harm reduction mechanisms to where the people are.”
What the experts are saying
Across the board, experts studying homelessness agree solutions to end that way of life begin with housing.
“A criminalization approach … doesn’t match the reality of people’s lives,” Oudshoorn says.
“When you’re sleeping rough, you’re already facing every possible disincentive to your current situation. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unhealthy, it’s dangerous. … it’s already a terrible situation that they’re in and so you can’t change people’s behaviour by making it worse.”
Shabeeh Ahmed, HAMSMaRT’s director of community engagement and mobilization, says that the “only cure for being unhoused is having a home, there’s no other way around it.”
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Lisa Nussey, strategic director of the outreach group, which has been at ground level with Hamilton’s encampments, says the health and well-being of those living in tent cities simply hinges on stable housing, which is a political problem, not a clinical one.
“That is to say, the health problems that are faced by people living in encampments also need to be addressed through accessible health care, but primarily through housing,” she says.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission’s Office of the Federal Housing Advocate — an independent, nonpartisan watchdog — announced in February that it had launched a formal review of encampments in Canada.
“The Advocate is very concerned that some governments are not taking the necessary steps to protect people experiencing homelessness, particularly during severe weather,” a release states.
“All levels of government have an obligation to end this crisis. The conditions in encampments, coupled with the underlying failure of governments at all levels to ensure people can access adequate housing, are a violation of fundamental human rights, including the human right to housing.”
A spokesperson for the advocate says that an interim report is expected by the end of September. Consultations and public engagement will continue through the end of the year as it continues work on its final report, expected in early 2024.
That report “will be presented to the federal Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities and will include recommendations for all levels of government.”
Transforming the approach in Hamilton
Responses have varied from London’s integrated Whole of Community System Response to Barrie’s attempt to prohibit the distribution of items like food, clothing, tents or tarps in public parks or on public lands without a permit.
In Hamilton, city staff initially responded with an enforcement-based approach in the summer of 2020 but have since shifted to a more “housing-led” approach.
The city became embroiled in a legal battle in July 2020 when a coalition of doctors, lawyers and street outreach workers secured a court injunction barring the city from moving people from tents.
HAMSMaRT and partners Keeping Six, a harm reduction organization, accepted legal aid that led to Ontario’s Superior Court granting an injunction that prevented the city from “involuntarily removing” encampments from public spaces, based on the argument that “proper supports” were not being offered to the city’s homeless residents.
Days after a Superior Court judge ruled against a permanent order to halt the dismantling of tents in November 2021, the city said it would be resuming enforcement of park bylaws, sparking demonstrations in support of those unhoused and creating conflict with city officials aggravated by a tent fire in a city centre park and a demonstration at police headquarters.
At the request of council, Hamilton’s housing division staff proposed an updated protocol this spring offering a “housing first” approach involving zoned sites for shelter. Nussey described that plan as one that would not end encampment enforcement but “merely complicate it.”
The proposed updated plan was voted down with a revised draft coming back to council in August, allowing tents in public spaces with conditions.
Only groupings of five tents at least 50 metres apart would be accepted as long as they were 10 metres away from private property, 50 metres from parks and 100 metres from schools, daycares and playgrounds.
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Additionally, it provides provisions for public washroom and shower facilities at yet-to-be-determined locations for those who are unhoused and a two-year Tiny Shelter pilot project in the city’s north side.
The Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters (HATS) pilot project, which initially endured resistance from council over a suitable space where the community could reside, will see some 25 mini-houses built near the harbour.
Some residents and businesses have expressed concerns over site selection, arguing that little to no notice nor consultation was given by the city.
A local councillor and organizers would hear opposition from several north-end residents minutes after the start of a late August neighbourhood meeting at a school gym laying out the HATS plan.
City staff say the small parking lot on the city’s northside was chosen for the small homes since it provided a paved area with separation from businesses and residents, yet close to social services.
As a result of Hamilton’s actions to mitigate its current housing and encampment predicament, housing services will require an annual increase of about 30 per cent to its budget — equating to an additional $16 million for 2023.
In mid-August, Angie Burden, general manager of the healthy and safe communities division, submitted that high interest rates, increasing utility bills, precarious employment and inflation created those conditions and are now draining the city reserve funds.
“The bottom line is our incomes are not keeping pace with rising costs of living,” Burden said during a general issues committee meeting.
So far in 2023, close to $22 million have been absorbed by reserve funds covering “in-year costs” needed to put money into the city’s shelter system and affordable housing-related projects.
Close to $2.9 million plus some $255,000 in capital costs will be needed in 2024 to execute a revised encampment protocol, covering mainly staff and vehicle purchases. Nearly $1 million of that is earmarked for security at washroom and shower sites alone.
Provincial, federal government support needed
Burden insists partnerships with the federal and provincial government will be “critical” going forward since the municipality “can’t bear” the costs through existing revenue streams, including those from taxpayers.
It’s a call echoed by the city’s general manager of finance, Mike Zegarac, who says that with COVID emergency funding now “drying up,” and even some that being “clawed back” by Queen’s Park, it would require more dips into reserves ultimately “depleting them” within three years at the current rate.
Over the next three years, Ontario is expected to spend close to $700 million through its Homelessness Prevention Program (HPP), which targets homelessness and adds community and housing support.
Since 2021, the province says it has provided over $123 million under various programs to support vulnerable people in Hamilton.
Under the HPP, the city has received over $51 million, including some $27.9 million in 2023 — an increase of over $4.3 million from the year before.
Hamilton is set to see roughly another $28 million annually over the next two years to cover homeless prevention services in the city’s shelter system and residential care facilities.
Coun. Brad Clark suggests the money is not nearly enough to assist with ongoing turnover and retention issues he’s seen at some local shelters requiring additional cash to cope with “real demands” in the community.
“They’re underfunding us dramatically,” Clark says.
“If they were funding based on needs, there would be way more money coming into this municipality and we would have more buildings with more shelter beds.”
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A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing says “underfunding” from the federal government, by about $480 million, through its National Housing Strategy has hampered the province’s efforts to alleviate housing and homelessness.
“These are dollars that are urgently needed to fund housing and homelessness programs,” ministry spokesperson Conrad Spezowka says.
“Ontario continues to advocate for and alongside municipalities and our most vulnerable by calling on the federal government to pay their fair share.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the Office of the Minister of Housing and Infrastructure and Communities in Ottawa says it “will not rest until everyone in Hamilton and right across the country has access to affordable housing.”
Of $4 billion in federal homelessness funding, the ministry says it has provided around $7.5 million over two years to the city.
“We know the federal government can’t solve the housing crisis alone. We need everyone at the table with us on this,” the office states in an email.
Oudshoorn stresses that encampments will continue until “we deal with the bigger structural issues … which is that we need housing that is truly affordable and that has the right supports.”
“Until we get there, I think the best a strong municipality can do is keep things stable. The more likely, as most municipalities are seeing, is we keep going further behind.”
– with a file from Global News’ Saba Aziz and Erica Alini.